Directors, are you passionate about your board roles?

Sunday, 01 September 2019


    Elizabeth Jameson, non-executive director of Queensland Theatre Company, says your passion for board roles is an important contributor to longevity.

    I’m Brisbane-born and bred. I was school captain at Brisbane Girls Grammar School (BGGS). This piqued my interest in leadership and governance. It was a formative experience in terms of later stepping into, and stepping up, on boards. I’ve spent most of my life strongly connected to the school. You could say I never really left! I became a trustee of the board of BGGS in 1995 and chair in 2006. I finished up as chair [in late 2018] but my connection with the school community will not cease.

    Making the decision to leave a board is a bit like going home after a holiday — you should leave while you’re still enjoying it. [At BGGS] I felt as much energy, enthusiasm and drive as I always did, but after 12 years as chair — with an exceptional principal in place and a really solid succession plan — I know the new board will go from strength to strength. As much as I still miss it, I left really joyfully, with the board in good condition and in very capable hands.

    Path to purpose

    I didn’t set out with this career path in mind. My father had been a company director but growing up I had no idea what that meant.

    I didn’t have any aspirations at the time to follow in his footsteps. He was a great role model, but only later in the piece. Like most people who find themselves in boardrooms, my beginnings were serendipity mixed with natural inclination.

    The first management committee I joined was the Arts Law Centre of Queensland, a community legal and accounting service for artists, which I helped create. I was the most junior member — a “gofer” — so when someone had to put in the grunt hours to draw up the constitution and the organisational roles, it fell to me. I stayed with the Arts Law Centre for more than six years, becoming president and chair. I saw you could create something out of nothing and make a difference.

    I spent almost 15 years as a corporate and commercial lawyer, including as a partner of national law firm Deacons (now Norton Rose Fulbright).

    I cut my teeth, like many directors, on not-for-profit charitable board roles, some of them unpaid, while still working as a lawyer. I eventually found the pressure of managing both too great. I had a serious talk to myself one weekend and decided I had to give up the arts boards. But I felt really depressed at the thought and realised then that the part of my day, week, month and year I loved the most was made up of board roles. So I left law to try to build a board portfolio.

    If you take board roles that resonate with who you are, then work and life blend together very well.

    Branching out

    After 10 years as a practising director, 17 years ago I founded Board Matters and its associated governance legal practice [Board Matters Legal]. I have recently transitioned to the role of executive chair at Board Matters, which today is a team of specialist governance, legal and strategy consultants. I still maintain an active portfolio of directorships.

    What I love about working with different boards is that you dip into a whole array of different domains like a bee moving from flower to flower. You cross-pollinate, taking information from all sorts of weird and wonderful places, and pass it on. You’re constantly learning.

    My advice to people who want to tread this path is the same as I’d give to anyone seeking to pursue their dreams and aspirations — back yourself. I had so much opportunity as a partner of a law firm, but I chucked it in because it didn’t resonate for me.

    People said to me at the time: “that was brave”, but what would have been brave was persisting in the face of the thing that sapped my energy. I’m glad I backed myself and took that risk.

    Live and learn

    Even now, after more than 25 years in these kinds of roles, I still learn things that surprise me. I’m not a finance-qualified director, so I learn a huge amount from colleagues who are technically qualified and skilled in this area. There have been times I’ve felt I’ve bitten off more than I can chew — not because I hadn’t done my due diligence, but because I’d underestimated how technically difficult a particular board would be. Then you just have to put in a lot of extra work. I’ve always prided myself on not giving up and working really hard to ensure I’m sufficiently across the content and the issues.

    There’s a lot of momentum to get more women on boards, but my strong view is we’ve got to stop talking about it as an issue of equity. It’s not about being fair to women. It’s about good business. Research shows, over and over, that we get better governance of companies with more diverse boards and I don’t only mean women; I mean people who come from different skills backgrounds, demographics and geography. National boards that are completely Sydney- or Melbourne-centric are as bad as boards that don’t have any women on them.

    I’ve heard a lot of men say they can’t get on a board because of quotas for women. But it’s not about the women. I tell them to go and talk to all the older blokes who are not moving off boards and making way for new directors.

    Advice for directors

    “Aspiring directors should be patient and disciplined. You’ll be doing yourself and the organisation a disservice if you take the first thing that comes along. Don’t gain a reputation for hasty exits or for using one board as a stepping stone to the next one. Only accept a board role if you really think you can make a contribution.

    Being on a board isn’t for everyone. Don’t underestimate the time commitment involved. Even NFP and charitable boards will be more demanding of their directors today than they were 10 years ago.

    Like most directors, I spend too much time at nights and on weekends reading board packs because the regulatory and compliance burden is ever increasing.

    Some meetings go on for hours or days. Others involve making difficult decisions. You need to be clear what you’re letting yourself in for. Despite all the due diligence in the world, you can find yourself in deep water.

    Work-life balance is a misnomer. Work and life are not two separate things. When you love what you do, you’re not trying to balance the board work against the rest of life. As an example, I love theatre and one of my NFP board roles is with the Queensland Theatre Company.

    Apart from board work, we trot off to opening nights and are involved with stakeholders including subscribers, actors and donors. These activities are part of my board responsibilities, and something I like to do.”

    Developing Your Director Career by Elizabeth Jameson is available here.

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